Congress has made June 19 a national holiday. "Juneteenth," which President Biden will officially sign into law later today, pays homage to the date in 1865 when a Union general in Galveston, upon discovering that African Americans were still being enslaved in Texas 30 months after the Emancipation Proclamation, decreed simply that "All slaves are free."
The vote on Capitol Hill was bipartisan and overwhelming: In the Senate, where Texas Republican John Cornyn was a chief sponsor, the measure was approved Tuesday by unanimous consent. In Wednesday's House vote, the tally was 415-14.
Not everyone was satisfied, of course. CNN made a point of identifying all 14 Republicans who voted nay (against 195 Republicans who voted aye). And one Democrat, the reliably hyper-partisan Rep. Eric Swalwell, issued the single goofiest statement I've ever heard a member of Congress make.
Swalwell breaks the (admittedly subjective) record set by another California congressman –Republican William Dannemeyer -- during the final stages of the 1983 House debate on Martin Luther King Day, which was the last time Congress added a federal holiday to the calendar.
In a good news footnote, as happened nearly four decades years ago, yesterday a Texas Democrat rode to the rescue: In 1983, it was Mickey Leland who rose to the occasion to preserve the honor of "the people's House." Yesterday it was Sheila Jackson Lee.
Until the summer of 1983, a majority of Republicans in the House opposed efforts pushed by the Congressional Black Caucus to create a federal holiday in Martin Luther King's name. That year, there was a sustained push by Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers to mark the 15th anniversary of King's martyrdom with the bill he'd introduced in each session of Congress since 1968. Ostensibly, GOP opposition concerned the federal budget, and a view that the federal bureaucracy did not need another paid day off. Many Democrats suspected other reasons, but even those who did not ascribe racist views to their Republican colleagues believed they were being insensitive to the meaning of the proposed new holiday.
"I never viewed it as an isolated piece of legislation to honor one man," Conyers told his colleagues. "Rather, I have always viewed it as an indication of the commitment of the House and the nation to the dream of Dr. King. When we pass this legislation, we should signal our commitment to the realization of full employment, world peace, and freedom for all."
Other members of the CBC were less restrained. When Bill Dannemeyer, the arch-conservative Republican from Orange County, Calif., took to the House floor to complain that the cost to the taxpayers would be $225 million in lost productivity, he received a sharp rebuke.
"What do you mean, ‘cost'?" replied Rep. Parren Mitchell, an African American Democrat from Maryland. "What was the cost of keeping us where we were? All these extraneous things don't mean a thing. I'm talking about what is the right and decent thing to do."
Democrats were disappointed, in particular, by the resistance of Republicans they believed should have known better. Among them: Jack Kemp, who loathed racism and who conveyed these sentiments in public and private; Dan Lungren, a Southern California conservative who clearly understood the important symbolism of Conyers' bill; and Newt Gingrich, a firebrand who talked about expanding his party's demographic reach.
Gradually, the shortsightedness of objecting to the King holiday on fiscal grounds became apparent to conservatives. Lungren was one of the first to see it. After initially voting against the bill, he went home and told his wife that he thought he had done "the wrong thing." She advised him to rectify it. Lungren shared his feelings with Kemp, who was having misgivings of his own. A native Californian, Kemp had played professional football for a dozen years, and had formed friendships with African American teammates that pre-dated -- and superseded -- politics. Kemp heard from these old friends, who were dismayed by his opposition to a bill honoring the nation's most iconic civil rights leader.
Lungren and Kemp discussed their change of heart with Gingrich, who suggested they go see Rep. Conyers. It was more than a courtesy call. These influential Republicans had decided to switch sides. They asked the Michigan Democrat how they could help him pass his bill. Conyers' advice: Speak in favor of it on the House floor.
And so, on Aug. 2, 1983, Jack Kemp stood in the well of the House and made an eloquent oration. "I have changed my position on this vote," he said, "because I really think that the American Revolution will not be complete until we commemorate the civil rights revolution and guarantee those basic declarations of human rights for all Americans and remove those barriers that stand in the way of people being what they were meant to be."
Kemp, like Lungren, made it a point that day to proclaim that King hadn't liberated black Americans, he'd liberated all Americans. Whites, because of the binding nature of their thinking, had been liberated most of all.
"I want my party to stand for that," said Kemp, who spoke without notes. "If we lose sight of the fact that the Republican Party was founded by Mr. Lincoln as a party of civil rights, freedom, and hope, and opportunity, and dreams, and a place where all people could be free -- if we turn our backs, we are not going to the be the party of human dignity we want, as Republicans, to be known for."
Bill Dannemeyer -- a Lutheran elder and fiscal hawk known for opposition to "militant homosexuality," environmental regulation, and even the American With Disabilities Act -- was impervious to such entreaties.
Dannemeyer requested time to speak from the Democrats' floor manager, Mickey Leland, the charismatic and admirable congressman representing Houston's mostly black 18th Congressional District. Leland sighed and granted the request. Dannemeyer took the floor with an argument he thought might sway his colleagues: How can America have a holiday for Martin Luther King when Germany doesn't even have a holiday for Martin Luther?
Sitting the House Press Gallery, I laughed aloud. Mickey Leland pointed out icily that Martin Luther King Jr. had actually been named after his father, and subsequently called for the vote. The bill passed overwhelmingly on a bipartisan basis and Ronald Reagan enthusiastically signed it, just as joe Biden will sign the Juneteenth bill this afternoon.
As I mentioned earlier, until yesterday I thought Bill Dannemeyer's "Martin Luther" howler was the single dumbest thing I'd ever heard a congressman say. But thank goodness for Rep. Eric Swalwell, a San Francisco Bay Area Democrat with such high self-regard that despite being unknown outside his district he decided, at age 38, that he should be president of the United States. He ran, too.
You may remember him from the debates. Or his social media accounts. In an effort to gain traction among the 20-odd Democratic candidates, and appeal to female voters, Swalwell once tweeted, "Do you know how many times the word ‘Woman' is mentioned in the Constitution? Zero. That is unacceptable. Women must be equally represented and equally protected." It was an odd thing for a male candidate to say and it didn't take long for those who know their history to point out that the word "man" isn't in the nation's founding document either, although "person," "people," and "citizens" are mentioned dozens of times.
Yesterday, Swalwell, who is now 40 years old, broke new ground, even for him. "Wow," he tweeted as the Juneteenth roll call vote took place. "#GOPLeader McCarthy is leading a pro-slavery party. His members -- in double digits -- are voting against celebrating the emancipation of slavery in America."
Thinking about the proposition that 14 votes are more representative than 195 votes, one hopes that California and other progressive places considering doing away with math requirements in school might slow their roll. In any event, one Democrat didn't miss the significance of yesterday's historic vote. That was Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents the same Texas district as Mickey Leland, who died young in 1989 in a plane crash.
"It's a long journey, but here we are," Rep. Jackson Lee said after Wednesday's vote. "That racial divide has fallen out of the sky and we are crushing it to the earth. … This bill and this day is about freedom."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.